My first novel, The Wrong Side of Right, was born from a simpler time in American politics. Don’t get me wrong, the political arena was all about blood sport even in 2011, but it was less MMA than fencing back then—the first candidate to draw the teensiest amount of blood would usually win. Even so, the tone of political commentary was already fast devolving into what passes for discourse today—callous, derailing, the human element all but lost.
I’d been curious about the workings of a political campaign since Obama’s run in 2008, which several of my friends were closely involved with, including one highly placed staffer who later became the first official videographer for the White House. This campaign marked the first time I could draw a direct line between my own life and the lives of people working in the political trenches. It was fun to take a peek behind the scenes via Facebook posts and photo updates. As a pure spectator, it made me feel that much closer to the action.
But that wasn’t actually what made me want to write about politics. It was a single moment, driving home from the grocery store, listening to radio news coverage the day it came to light that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a son with his housekeeper—and that this boy was now thirteen years old. Following on the heels of John Edwards’s career-destroying affair, which had also resulted in the birth of a child, the commentators were practically frothing at the mouth, speculating about how this scandal would affect the then California governor’s legacy and political future. I listened, rapt, parked in my driveway with the engine running, waiting for them to mention the one thing they were glaringly omitting. It never came. They never once mentioned the human element—how humiliating and terrifying the media attention must be for this teen boy.
From there, my mind veered off into a hundred what-ifs. What was this kid going through? How public would his life be from this point on? Would this situation be harder in some ways if he were a girl, given the microscopic scrutiny we subject teen girls to in today’s society? And the big one: In what ways might this revelation be considered good news? The story that would become my first novel started to fall into place from those questions—a teen girl blindsided by the revelation that she’s the center of a national scandal at the very moment that she’s most vulnerable, mourning the loss of the mother who raised her alone. And to up the ante, why not put her right smack in the middle of the last few, high-stakes months of a presidential campaign?
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By placing the story in an election year, I got to indulge two parts of me that often warred with each other: The part that thought politics was inhumane and divisive and the part that enjoyed watching it as a sort of sport, rooting for my team no matter the cost. At the heart of the story, I seeded my own experience as a child of divorce, shuttling between two very different families, wondering what role I was meant to play in each, trying my very best to fit in, to not ruffle feathers, to prove I belonged. In other words—to navigate the politics of family life. As a teen, there came frequent moments in which I vehemently disagreed with the opinions my father voiced about politics, but I rarely shared my own thoughts. I felt that by keeping my mouth shut, I was maintaining balance in our familial universe. It took me years to realize that all I was doing was shutting myself off, failing to share that one key element that would cement my bond with my dad even more—the truth as I saw it.
Writing The Wrong Side of Right, I wondered whether all teens at times felt the same reserve as the protagonist, Kate, a tenuous balance between maintaining peace and speaking what was in her heart. I wonder now whether that’s key to what gives teenagers a reputation for political disengagement—fear of their opinions not being heard, being discounted, or worst of all, causing a rift between them and the people closest to them. So in some ways, I’ll admit, there’s an element of wish-fulfillment in the novel. It’s a story about love triumphing over the shallow theatrics and combativeness of politics. Ultimately, it’s the story of what politics should be about—people caring for one another. The human element.
So here we are, in 2016. I will say, The Wrong Side of Right has proven prescient in a couple of areas—a Supreme Court vacancy, immigration as a central issue, a scandal-plagued Republican candidate—but my most cynical guesses could never have approached the lows of this election cycle. I can only hope that the past year has shocked America in the way that that radio story back in 2011 shocked me, forcing me to take stock of how complicit I was in a political system that should by its very definition be about helping our neighbors instead of knocking them down.
I think teen readers understand this implicitly. They may not voice it, they may just roll their eyes at the very mention of the word “politics,” but what they’re responding to is the divide between what is and what should be. The truth is, teens stand ready to change the political world as we know it. And that, more than anything else, gives me a lot of hope.